When the Denver Broncos created the first legitimate surprise of the 2015 NFL Draft, trading up five spots in the first round to grab Missouri pass-rusher Shane Ray, the message could not have been clearer.
Denver, and in particular team executive John Elway, apparently will go all-out this year to make a desperate run at winning the Super Bowl. No three-year plans or longer-range timetables. With quarterback Peyton Manning trying at 39 to push his luck to the max one more time, the Broncos can't think beyond 2015.
Sure, new head coach Gary Kubiak will be around to help Elway put together Denver's next-generation roster in the post-Manning era.
But for now, the Broncos have no thoughts about what comes next. That means bold moves, such as restructuring the offensive line. That meant sending center Manny Ramirez and two low draft picks to Detroit for the chance at Ray, and letting right tackle Orlando Franklin leave for San Diego. Also, many probably hadn't noticed that Denver had traded for veteran center Gino Gradkowski of Baltimore and signed Houston free-agent guard Shelley Smith (from Colorado State), both of whom have played for Kubiak.
Add in Denver's second-round pick, right tackle Ty Sambrailo of CSU, to compete with second-year player Michael Schofield (out of Michigan). Then another draftee, Florida center Max Garcia, to push Gradkowski. And don't forget third-round tight end Jeff Heuerman from Ohio State to join veteran signee Owen Daniels in replacing the departed Julius Thomas.
That sounds like a front office working shrewdly, and impatiently, to give this team the best chance possible. Just one problem. Or, actually, two puzzling issues that, despite being known to the football world, went unaddressed in the offseason and the draft, strange for a franchise so obsessed with a championship.
1. Backup quarterback. Granted, everyone agrees that Denver's chances for a championship depend entirely on Manning being healthy and sharp, especially when the playoffs arrive. But given No. 18's age, no matter how diligent his personal conditioning, odds are that Manning will suffer some kind of injury this fall, perhaps enough to miss a game or two.
Denver is not prepared for that. Let's say Manning sprains an ankle in November. The only option would be unproven backup Brock Osweiler, who's not capable of keeping the Broncos on track for home-field advantage. The answer would be acquiring a veteran quarterback who could step into an emergency with better odds for a short span. It could mean somebody familiar, like Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Michael Vick or Matt Flynn (all available), or a younger guy like Case Keenum (whom Kubiak coached at Houston in 2013).
If that doesn't happen soon, giving the newcomer a chance to learn Kubiak's offensive system, you have to wonder.
2. Inside linebackers. Almost every pre-draft analysis of Denver's needs included linebackers. Ray, a pass-rush playmaker to go with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, takes care of the outside. But what about the two inside spots in Denver's revamped 3-4 alignment brought in by coordinator Wade Phillips?
The two apparent starters, Brandon Marshall (foot) and Danny Trevathan (knee), have had recurring injuries and aren't close to full speed just two months before training camp. And the Broncos haven't had sustained excellence at inside linebacker since, well, Al Wilson (1999-2006). Year after year, Denver has passed on drafting promising prospects, and the defense eventually has paid the price.
Instead of taking a flyer on a second Tulane cornerback, or Northwestern's quarterback coming off knee surgery, Denver could have picked (or pursued as free agents) such tough inside linebackers from big-time programs as Michigan State's Taiwan Jones, Penn State's Mike Hull, Alabama's Trey DePriest or Washington's John Timu. Yes, the Broncos did sign Nebraska's Zaire Anderson, but he's projected on the outside.
Apparently the Denver staff feels secure enough with the inside linebackers on hand, including Steven Johnson, Lamin Barrow, Reggie Walker and Corey Nelson. But that seems odd, given the team's urgency in so many other areas.
Regardless, until those two needs are filled, it's hard to see the Broncos being truly ready for 2015.
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